Edited by Konstanze Jungbluth, Cornelia Müller, Nicole Richter, Hartmut Schröder

Vahid Parvaresh

A framework for the study of ideology in written language: How to lower ideology’s immunity to experience and observation

Jef Verschueren. 2012. Ideology in Language Use: Pragmatic Guidelines for Empirical Research. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ideology is usually defined as “blindness to the fact that our concepts are mediated through their relations to other concepts” (Hawkes 2003: 99) or as “a particular perspective […] to maintain and perpetuate the values of dominant groups” (Amouzadeh 2008: 58). Nevertheless, a serious problem confronting any discussion of the nature of ideology is the scarcity of guidelines about how to research ideology.

To fill this gap, Jef Verschueren’s Ideology in Language Use: Pragmatic Guidelines for Empirical Research takes ideology research’ as seriously as possible. More importantly, the author’s use of the term ‘ideology’ bears on much more mundane and everyday processes that the grand political strands of thought it is usually associated with (such as liberalism, conservativism . . .)” (pp. 3-4).

Verschueren’s argument is that its ‘power’ and its ‘changeability’ turn ideology into a necessary object of systematic scrutiny in the social sciences. The purpose of the volume is to provide a ‘research tool’ for the investigation of discursively generated meaning. For, besides the excerpts the author draws on in his analyses, there is a rather extensive appendix (circa 150 pages) which is sufficiently rich to allow further practice of all angles of approach reviewed throughout the book. The main purpose of the volume, as explicitly mentioned in the introduction, is to reflect on methodological requirements for empirical ideology research and to offer procedures for engaging with ideology in practice.

Chapter one starts with the assumption that ideology is no longer an academic discipline, but rather an object of investigation. Accordingly, Verschueren presents a definition of ideology in the form of the following theses:

Thesis 1: We can define as ideological any basic pattern of meaning or frame of interpretation bearing on or involved in (an) aspect(s) of social ‘reality’ (in particular in the realm of social relations in the public sphere), felt to be commonsensical, and often functioning in a normative way. (p. 10)

Thesis 2: Ideology, because of its normative and common-sense nature, maybe highly immune to experience and observation. (p. 14)

Thesis 3: (One of) the most invisible manifestation(s) of ideology is LANGUAGE USE or DISCOURSE, which may reflect, construct, and/or maintain ideological patterns. (p. 17)

Thesis 4: Discursively reflected, constructed, and/or supported ideological meanings may serve the purposes of framing, validating, explaining, or legitimating attitudes, states of affairs, and actions in the domains to which they are applicable. (p. 19)

As discussed by Verschueren, the enumeration industry, trade, colonization of the world under the general label works of peace is likely to make most of us frown today. Even so, the early twentieth-century perspective was sufficiently different. Having analyzed a passage from a famous history textbook (Lavisse 1902), he provides us with the following conclusion, which is not unconvincing:

None of the information […] seems capable of undermining the categorization of colonial activity as peaceful. The reason is simply that colonial activity was categorized as peaceful, as a result of hegemonic legitimations in terms of good intentions which turned forms of violence not only into a right but even into a duty. (pp. 14-15, emphasis in the original)

Consequently, Verschueren argues, the peacefulness of colonization was part of people’s common sense.

Chapter two is the author’s attempt at introducing some pragmatics-based rules for engaging with language use and ideology. As Verschueren claims, these rules are related to the formation of research questions and the collection of data. One of the most important tasks the author undertakes is aimed at conveying the idea that intuitions have to be shaped into researchable questions. Of paramount importance in any ideology-oriented investigation, the author argues, are the following two ‘rules of engagement’:

Rule 1: Formulate researchable questions, i.e., questions to which answers can be given, supported with empirical evidence and susceptible to counter screening. (p. 22)

Rule 2: Before an aspect of meaning can be seen as an ingredient ideology, it should emerge coherently from the data, both in terms of conceptual connectedness with other aspects of meaning and of patterns of recurrence or of absence. (p. 23)

As the author recommends, however, rule 2 “should be read literally” (p. 25):

Coherence […] refers to systematically observable conceptual connections between aspects of meaning […] as well as to systematic patterns of recurrence […] or of absence . . . (p. 25, emphasis in the original)

In order to establish such coherent emergence of aspects of meaning, Verschueren argues, the corpus under investigation must meet certain standards. To put it differently, rule 2 has the following sub-rules:

Rule 2.1: Types of data must be varied horizontally (genre differences) and vertically (structural levels of analysis). (p. 26)

Rule 2.2: An appropriate amount of data is required. (p. 28)

Rule 2.3: Whatever is found throughout a wide corpus should also be recoverable in (at least a number of) individual instances of discourse. (p. 28)

Rule 2.4: The quality of the data must be carefully evaluated in view of the precise research goal. (p. 29)

The rest of the chapter is devoted to introducing the sources/texts the author will systematically refer to throughout chapter 3. Of the various sources introduced, one source, namely Lavisse (1902), is in French and all the others, such as McCarthy (1908) and Ransome (1910), are in English:

It was clear from the beginning that if we were aiming for representations of colonization beyond a strictly French point of view, at least one point of comparison would have to be taken. Britain was an obvious choice, as it was definitely the most successful of the European colonial powers at the time, and because traditional British-French rivalry […] could be expected to produce differences of perspective . . . (p. 31)

Accordingly, all colonization-related passages from Lavisse (1902) are selected and the Indian Mutiny of 1857 is chosen as the point of comparison. The choice of this incident is a wise one in that the Indian Mutiny of 1857 is an appropriate case to look at from the point of view of the tension legitimizations and the violence involved.

In chapter 3, the author presents general guidelines and practical procedures to be followed in the actual process of investigation. These guidelines are interspersed with a number of caveats. In point of fact, what Verschueren hopes to provide is “a package of methods grounded in a clear methodological perspective inspired by a general theory of linguistic pragmatics, viewed as the interdisciplinary science of language use” (p. 51, emphasis in the

original).In this respect, Verschueren views interpretation as an integral part of the research process and his recipe-like admonitions not just as guidelines and procedures but “as ingredients and building blocks of an overall act of interpretation” (p. 51). The four guidelines the author puts forward in chapter 3 are as follows:

1. Get to know your data thoroughly. (p. 54)

2. Get to know the context of your data. (p. 56)

3. The core task consists in tracing the dynamics of meaning generation in relation to issues pertaining to social structures, processes, and relations. (p. 117)

4. For an overall interpretation, ask yourself whether the assembled observations can be seen to represent an identifiable pattern of meaning in relation to issues pertaining to social structures, processes, and relations. (p. 191)

Apart from the last guideline, the other three guidelines are explained in view of a set of procedures. Guideline number 2, for example, is discussed with respect to the following three procedures:

2. 1. Investigate the wider (social, historical, geographical, etc.) context, to the extent that it is accessible. (p. 63)

2. 2. Investigate the immediate context of situation that presents itself, i.e., the way in which the discourse carves out lines of vision into its own physical, social, mental world. (p. 82)

2. 3. Investigate the linguistic context. (p. 106)

It is also worthwhile to note that some roots of the theory of pragmatics that underlies Verschueren’s approach in chapter 3 can also be found in an earlier publication under the term Linguistic Adaptation Theory (Verschueren 1999). The starting point in this approach is that using language is essentially an activity that generates meaning and that “using language must consist of the continuous making of linguistic choices, consciously or unconsciously” (Verschueren 1999: 56). In the present volume, these arguments have been further developed to lower ideology’s immunity to experience and observation.

The main conclusion from the pragmatic discussions provided in the volume under review is that “details of a story matter less than the way in which it is told and the overall message it carries” (p. 195). Therefore, Verschueren’s approach enables readers to identify ideological overtones in the most systematic way possible. Further to this, Verschueren’s approach

enables researchers to avoid the grave error of viewing the systems or phenomena to be compared as stable.

While I praise the author for providing us with such an amazing volume, I have, however, one reservation for its future editions. As Verschueren states, the target audience of the book “includes students in all fields of inquiry to which the societal construction of frames of reference or ways of viewing actions and events, as mediated through discourse, is relevant” (p. xii, emphasis is mine). Yet, the book has been printed on ‘glossy’ pages. This has increased the price and can dissuade some potential readers from purchasing the book. If that happens, it can be seen to exist in an opposition to the principle of knowledge justice that most academics share.

All in all, the leading role Jef Verschueren has played in furthering the discipline known as ‘pragmatics’ is beyond question (see Meeuwis and Östman 2012). Ideology in Language Use: Pragmatic Guidelines for Empirical Research is another successful endeavor made by Verschueren to offer guidelines and procedures for scientific research. The volume is a very useful tool not only for senior undergraduate and graduate students of language but also for anthropologists, political scientists and even historians. For, Verschueren does not provide readers with a full-scale analysis. Rather, he defines some key concepts and illustrates some key issues for analytical attention, which can personally be pursued by readers in the volume’s comprehensive 150-page appendix. This approach allows readers to focus only on the issues that they deem more relevant to their own knowledge and expertise. No doubt, this book is a welcome addition to the field and those who ignore it will do so at their own peril.


Amouzadeh, Mohammad. 2008. Language as social practice: Persian newspapers in the post-revolutionary Iran. Journal of Language and Politics 7(1): 53–70.

Hawkes, David. 2003. Ideology. London: Routledge.

Lavisse, Ernest. 1902. Histoire générale: Notions sommaires d'histoire ancienne, du moyen âge et des temps modernes (17th edn). Paris: Librairie Armand Colin [1st edn 1882].

McCarthy, Justin. 1908. A Short History of Our Own Times, from the Accession of Queen Victoria to the Accession of King Edward VII. London: Chatto and Windus [earlier edn published in 1888].

Meeuwis, Michael and Jan-Ola Östman. 2012. Pragmaticizing Understanding: Studies for Jef Verschueren. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Ransome, Cyril. 1910. A Short History of England from the Earliest Times to the Death of King Edward VII. London: Longmans, Green and Co. [earlier version published by Rivingtons in 1890].

Verschueren, Jef. 1999. Understanding Pragmatics. London/New York: Arnold.

Vahid Parvaresh
Research Interests: discourse analysis, cross-cultural pragmatics.

Download: Vahid Parvaresh: Review on Ideology in Language Use: Pragmatic Guidelines for Empirical Research. 2012. In PRAGMATICS.REVIEWS 2013.1.2

DOI: 10.11584/pragrev.2013.1.2.4